Naval Air: Defining Ruggedized

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October 2, 2018: India has learned, the hard way, that jet fighters capable of operating from carriers are a very specialized type of aircraft and not just a land-based jet modified a bit to withstand the rigors of landing and taking off from carriers. The failure in this area has been the MiG-29K. The Indian Navy bought 45 Russian MiG-29K jets for their new aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya (a rebuilt Russian Cold War era carrier.) The Indians were not happy with the performance of the Russian work on the Vikramaditya or the MiG-29K and now India is trying to force Russia to fix the shortcomings of the MiG-29K.

India ordered the MiG-29Ks in 2004, received the first batch by 2009 and began using them on the Vikramaditya in 2012. India has spent over $2 billion on the MiG-29Ks and Russia is the sole source for many components of the aircraft as well as being under contract to perform warranty repairs and refurbishment services for these carrier aircraft. There have been problems and disappointments with the MiG-29K. The main shortcoming is that the MiG-29K is not robust enough to operate from a carrier. Russia also selected the MiG-29K to replace the Su-33 for its only carrier. The Su-33 was a ruggedized version of the Su-33 that turned out to be insufficiently rugged. The replacement was the lighter MiG-29 that, learning from the Su-33 problems, was ruggedized more effectively, or so it was thought. India has used the MiG-29K more frequently (than Russia has) and found the MiG-29K could not handle the “controlled crashes” characteristic of successful carrier landings. Meanwhile, the Russians discovered some of the same problems but kept quiet about it. While all this was going on China got some Su-33s (from Ukraine) and copied the tech for their J15. The Chinese thought they had designed and built a version of the Su-33 that would perform adequately. That did not work either.

Now India is demanding that the Russians make good on the assurances that the MiG-29K could handle carrier operations or face losing even more Indian defense business. The MiG-29K may well be impossible to make “carrier capable” but making a lot of expensive repairs might mollify the Indians a bit. The MiG-29Ks not only suffered structural damage after every landing but the engines did as well. So far India has had 40 of these engines become totally unusable because of the damage. Russia is still considering its options as the Indian firm (HAL) that performs engine maintenance is waiting for the government to come up with the money to refurbish 113 MiG-29K engines that can be salvaged.

Meanwhile, India is looking for new carrier jets, believing that even a repaired MiG-29K is only an interim solution. In early 2017 the Indian Navy issued a request for foreign suppliers to bid on a $15 billion contract to supply 57 jet fighter-bombers capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. This came after a late 2016 announcement by the navy that India’s locally designed and built LCA (Light Combat Aircraft or "Tejas") jet fighter was unsuitable for use on Indian aircraft carriers. The navy mentioned the LCA being overweight and, well, simply not suitable. With some encouragement from the government, the Navy amended its decision to include the possibility that 46 of the LCA Mk2 (due in 2025) might be ordered if the empty weight could be reduced 15 percent (from 6.6 tons to 5.6 tons). Currently, the max weight is 13.5 tons and armament is one twin barrel 23mm autocannon and up to 3.5 tons of missiles and bombs. Internal fuel is 2.5 tons and that can be increased by at least 40 percent via drop tanks. Many in the navy don’t believe LCA will survive until 2025 and the government seems to concur and authorized the Navy to seek a suitable carrier aircraft abroad.

India is now considering three candidates for a MiG-29K replacement. These include the American F-18E, French Rafale and Swedens’ Gripen M (Maritime version). The leading candidate is the F-18E, which entered service in 1999 and was based on the 1970s F-18A (1,480 built). So far 500 F-18Es have been built but the only foreign user is Australia. Most existing F-18Es operate off American carriers and have an excellent record for its carrier operations. Same with the smaller F-18A, which was very popular with export customers and most of them used the F-18A as a land-based aircraft. India can salvage its MiG-29K investment by transferring these aircraft (after Russia pays for the repairs) to land-based operations only.

The second most likely MiG-29K replacement is the Rafale, which has been operating off the French nuclear carrier since 2004 and, in joint naval exercises, has operated from American carriers as well. Although Rafale M (Maritime) is a ruggedized version of the basic (land-based) Rafale French designers knew from the beginning that Rafale would be built in two (land and carrier) versions and that made a difference. France also had long experience using American carrier jets as well. This all made a crucial difference, as the Russians discovered with the Su-33 and MiG-29K. Because of the French experience, and Swedish reputation for quality, India is willing to consider the Gripen M.

India has already agreed to purchase 36 land-based Rafales and possibly many more. But, like so many foreign weapons purchases this deal is being delayed by accusations of corruption. This is something the Indian procurement bureaucracy is very good at and this tends to delay and sometimes kill procurement decisions. So there is a good chance that India will find itself with aircraft carriers with no jet aircraft, at least until the procurement process finally gets organized and obtains the needed carrier aircraft.

 


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